Reproductive health campaign ban unconstitutional

Information on unsafe abortions will save lives.

In Summary
  • Severe unsafe abortion complications were most common among women aged 19 or younger.
  • Women and girls of reproductive age can make informed decisions concerning their sexuality if they access essential reproductive health information.

In September 2018, the Kenya Film Classification Board banned Marie Stopes Kenya from providing information to the public, adolescents and youth on the magnitude and impact of unsafe abortion in Kenya.

Two months later, in November, the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Council, and Director of Medical Services further banned Marie Stopes Kenya from providing abortion care, including post-abortion care, despite it being considered emergency treatment under the Constitution and the Health Act. Additionally, the Medical Board ordered Marie Stopes Kenya to pull down all reproductive health information on its website.

The bans were preceded by a nine-week media information campaign through Radio Africa Group’s online and radio platforms in which Marie Stopes Kenya highlighted statistics, dangers of unsafe abortion and associated stigma and provided information to those in need of pregnancy crisis counselling on how to find help. The Medical Board and KFCB argued that Marie Stopes Kenya had conducted a campaign that ‘promoted abortion’ contrary to Article 26(4) of the Constitution and violated the Medical Practitioners rules on advertisements.

It’s important to underscore that access to reproductive health information and services, including safe, legal abortion—and the circumstances under which abortion is permitted—is provided for in Article 26(4) of the Constitution. Therefore, such decisions undermine the constitutional rights of countless women and girls, including rape survivors from communities who rely on Marie Stopes as their sole comprehensive reproductive healthcare centre and are in dire need of accessing reproductive health information and services including safe, legal abortion.

When public institutions execute such bans against reproductive health providers, women and girls of reproductive age not only miss the requisite deserved lifesaving reproductive healthcare, but also (miss) enjoyment of their fundamental rights to access information, right to health, dignity,  equality, equal protection from law, freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

To contextualise the adverse impact of restricting reproductive health providers from serving women and girls of reproductive age, it is critical to look at data. According to latest statistics from the Ministry of Health, an estimated 464,690 induced abortions occurred in 2012 and in the same year, an estimated 157,762 women received care for complications of induced and spontaneous abortions in health facilities. Severe unsafe abortion complications were most common among women aged 19 or younger.

They say numbers don’t lie. According to the United Nations Populations Fund 2018 report on Kenya, there were 378,397 adolescent and teenage pregnancies for girls ages 10-19 between July 2016 and June 2017. More specifically, there were 28,932 girls ages 10-14 and 349,465 girls ages 15-19 who became pregnant.

The harrowing figures make it imperative for any responsible government to develop programmes that target this demographic. One of the critical programmes required is access to information that ably reduces stigma and prevents unsafe abortions. Any actions to the contrary by public institutions or individuals at the helm of such institutions defies all logic in deliberate efforts aimed at reducing deaths and injuries caused by unsafe abortions, especially amongst adolescents.

Access to information, a constitutional guarantee under Article 35, is crucial in ensuring women and girls of reproductive age enjoy the highest attainable standard of health, including reproductive healthcare. It also provides that “Every citizen has the right of access to information held by the State; and information held by another person and required for the exercise or protection of any right or fundamental freedom…” and requires the state to publish and publicise “important information affecting the nation.

Women and girls of reproductive age can make informed decisions concerning their sexuality if they access essential reproductive health information. For instance, they can avoid unplanned pregnancies which trigger unsafe abortions and sexually transmitted infections including HIV-Aids, among others.

Blatant attempts perpetrated by individual officers at the helm of public institutions based on personal biases to limit constitutionally guaranteed healthcare services through back door channels without justifiable grounds should be deplored in toto.

Institutions and individuals responsible for violation of the rights of women and girls in the pretext of executing non-existent mandates should be held to account. The government should implement the frameworks laid-down by the Constitution, health policies and laws to accord all women and girls, more so adolescent girls, the necessary information on their health that will empower them to make healthy choices for their development.

Senior Regional Director for Africa, Center for Reproductive Rights